Talking with Black Francis About Graphic Novels and French Pornography

Black Francis
Black Francis of the Pixies performs in November 2013. Hugo Correia/Reuters

In 2009, on the 20th anniversary of Doolittle tour, Pixies frontman Black Francis sat down with his writer friend Josh Frank and detailed a bizarre idea for a movie.

It would be based on what is believed to be the first porn film, the 1908 French title La bonne auberge, in which, according to Frank, "a soldier goes to an inn and meets the daughter of the innkeeper and they have a lot of sex." He had read about it but never seen it and wasn't quite sure it still existed. But no matter—he would fill in the blanks of the plot, and so he set about writing the soundtrack and, with Frank, sketching out the ideas for a script.

Half a decade later, the film they conspired to make doesn't exist and the soundtrack is unrecorded—but The Good Inn, a graphic novel inspired by La bonne auberge, written by Francis and Frank and with illustrations by cartoonist Steven Appleby, has just been published.

As The Good Inn lands in stores, Doolittle—the best, scariest, and most influential rock record of the eighties—turns 25, and Pixies are poised to release their first album since 1991. Francis chatted with Newsweek about the ongoing effort to turn The Good Inn into a movie and the puzzling allure of early 20th-century pornography.

How did you find out about Le bonne auberge?

Just on the Internet. I was writing some songs for what I had hoped would be a Pixies record and maybe a movie we would participate in. I thought a few years ago that might convince everyone in the band to get together in a studio situation. I suggested someone else's movie, but that didn't really seem to go anywhere. So I suggested, well, maybe a movie of our own. I needed to write some songs, so I tried to get a song cycle based on some of the things I was reading about.

Random or not, my starting point was: what was the first official pornographic film made? And it took me back to 1907, France. So that's where it stemmed from, me writing this song cycle that was a movie in my head with some historical roots, in both the film and subsequent to that I decided to include this ship explosion in France, which happened in 1908.

Were the rest of the members of the band just not into the idea of this song cycle?

Well, I think we had enough concerns or whatever just trying to get people doing this film. Me with my espresso-inspired idea about, "Heeey, let's get involved with a movie!" was probably just too much to contemplate.

You've been interested in early cinema for some time. "Debaser," inspired by Dali and Bunuel's 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, is probably the most obvious example of that.

Yeah! I'm interested in a lot of the modern artistic expression of the early 20th century. This was when the realism and Dadaism and cubism and modern architecture and all these sorts of pre-radio and pre-television kind of bohemian life—people sitting around thinking about abstraction… I dunno, I think for a lot of people, if you're not from that time period, thinking about that kind of stuff is kind of exciting. Thinking about, you know, Man Ray and Picasso and Dalí and Picasso and all of these characters. Such an exciting time, at least from our perspective here in modern time. It seems so magical. And just out of our grasp, you know? Cutting edge at the time, and it still feels pretty cutting edge. It still feels pretty wonderful.

I know "Debaser" was the main reason I watchedUn Chien Andalou as a teenager, and I'm sure that tens of thousands of other people would say the same thing.

Yeah, I think that film in general has become so caught up in narrative and this Hollywood vehicle or whatever. Back in those early days, there were just a lot of people with cameras, just kind of shooting stuff and seeing what happened. It was such an exciting time with so much experimentation. Of course, it doesn't take long for sex to be involved.

So I assume you've watched this early French pornographic film?

I have not seen that particular one. I've not been able to find a copy of it anywhere in the world, so it's almost like it's based on a rumor. But we find references to it in old films and that kind of thing. I don't know if it still exists or not. It may have blown up in the explosion of nitrocellulose!

Can you tell me about your collaborative process with [co-author] Josh Frank and with the illustrations?

We sort of set out to write a film ostensibly. This idea of doing this film project kind of fell on the back burner and I was meeting with Josh and we were just having coffee and talking about things that we were involved in. I mentioned this, and he said, "Oh, wait, you wrote some music with a film idea in mind? Let's write this movie and see if we can get it to happen." So that's what we did. We started off first writing a film treatment, and then we got [illustrator] Steven Appleby involved. Josh had this great idea about getting Steven involved to build some nice illustrations that went along with our treatment. The treatment turned into this graphic novel, and now the graphic novel is more or less the basis for the final script, which Josh and I are working on right now.

So if we can get the film to be made, I think it will obviously take a lot of cues for the graphic novel, which took a lot of cues from the original treatment, which took a lot of cues from my original song cycle.

So you are still planning to go ahead with the film?

Yeah! I think it's an exciting time to do artistic endeavors like film or music because things like Kickstarter and digital technology being what it is, it's like, "Oh, we can't really get the funding to do it the way that we originally envisioned it, so let's just do it. Let's just record it. Let's just shoot this movie."

I mean, who knows what would've happened if Man Ray would have had an iPhone. I imagine he would've dabbled with it. I love the analog and I love real film and I love real audio recording, but let's just face it. All that stuff is becoming more and more difficult. You kind of have to embrace digitalness to express some of your things.

How are you managing to balance all this work with the Pixies' touring and the recordings you've put out?

I guess it's been a little bit of a challenge. In the case of working on A Good Inn or the film version—which we'd like to call Guncotton, which is the English word for nitrocellulose—Josh and I just look at our calendar and I say, "Hey, I'm going to be in Toronto for a few days" and he might meet me in Toronto. I'll say, "Hey, I'll see you at the coffee shop after my yoga class and we can brainstorm for a few hours." Or he's going to New York City to do something, I'll say, "OK, I have to go do something in New York too, I'll meet you there. We'll hash through it." We just try to do that as often as we can. We get together every few months, for just a few hours or sometimes they'll be several meetings over a few days.

Whatever happened to the demos you recorded for the song cycle? Will that ever turn into an EP?

Yeah, I think most of those songs still exist in a demo format. And some of them will get used. In theory, they'll be part of some sort of soundtrack, some sort of music that will be in the film.

Those will be a Pixies project?

I certainly would like them to be involved. But it's kind of hard to nail everyone down. It's difficult for them to deal with me. It's sort of like, "Hey, here's an idea, let's do this thing!" It's easy to talk about stuff and it's another thing for something to actually be done. I think I'd like to present it to them again when it seems like it's actually going to matriculate into a film. And then I think I'll be able to get people's attention. Talking to someone like yourself and putting out this graphic novel is—really, we're thinking of it as a flagship for the film idea.

The book seems to share so many themes and elements with a lot of Pixies songs. The supernatural elements, the history that goes into it…

Well, I hope so! It's because I'm involved in it or whatever! I don't know what else to attribute it to. It's not by design. I don't sit around going, "How can I come up with something that's kind of like me or kind of like Pixies?" I just sort of do stuff and if it reminds people of other things that I've done, I guess I'm not surprised. I'm not completely all over the map. I have some sort of consistency or thread running through all this.

What was the research process like?

I know people that are real researchers and they do a lot of hard work. For me, the research for creative endeavors—I feel like it's easier than hardcore historical research. My agenda is a sort of creative thing. I'm really just scanning information—yes, for research, yes, to find out if something is historically accurate or what is the background. I'll look at something in a sociological way or an anthropological way, but ultimately my agenda is my art project. So I'm really just scanning for things that pop. Things that suit me, like, "Oh, this seems like a fun detail! This seems like an interesting concept to have in my idea!" It's almost scouting for talent. You're just scouting for talented information!

This is your first foray into book publishing. Do you think you'll end up writing a memoir?

People have approached me about that, but I'm not really interested in that. I'm really more interested in creative projects, and to me autobiography doesn't feel creative. I like reading other people's biographies, but me working on one, at least at this stage in my life, feels like having to take Algebra II again.

Do you ever feel like you want to "correct the record" about any information out there?

If you've got a Wikipedia entry, a lot of people some years ago were like, "Oh my god, this is all wrong!" or [experienced] other sorts of negative Internet experiences, but now the whole Internet—it really is the largest bathroom wall in the universe. And there's so much misinformation and so much negativity and just putting each other down and a lot of crap, basically. There's so much of that that the motivation to correct everything that you think is wrong—I don't feel that motivated anymore. Whatever, I don't care, the river is too big.

You are pretty active on social media—on Twitter, at least. You must read things people say about you.

Usually when I'm on tour. When I'm at home I don't pay attention to it as much. When I have downtime, I enjoy reading what people say about the show they saw last night. Sometimes I fiddle around with it. I like feeling other people and see what they're up to, other artists or actors or writers or whoever. And people who aren't in the entertainment business and I just randomly ended up following their Twitter feed because they said something funny once.

I love Instagram and I love the Vine and all that, but I eventually had to stop doing that kind of stuff because it was too much of a time suck and it was kind of keeping me away from real people in my life. I'm not against it or anything like that, but there is this really big potential for emptiness or empty hours and lost opportunities to really connect with the real world because of things like iPads and iPhones and computers in general.

As long as we're talking about the Internet, it was so interesting to read about this early porn film. These days there are millions of websites you can visit at any time if you want porn. Back then, you had to go out of your way to find it.

Yeah, we haven't been able to find it even. But it was fascinating doing the research. Back in 1907 or 1908, there weren't that many movie cameras or that many people making movies. Even though we haven't been able to find hard information about this film, sometimes you can connect the dots and go, "You know, we don't know for sure if this person was involved in this, but they probably were. Because there weren't that many people doing this thing." It becomes a small world, all these people competing with each other, [like] Edison and the Lumière brothers.

So are you going full-steam on promoting the book now?

I'm not really full-steam on promoting this book because I just don't have the time. My ultimate agenda is to make a movie. And my day job, of course, is to play in this rock band. So I only have so much time and I have kids and a family life and the thing that I'm working on in my spare time right now is painting. I've been painting as an artist for a couple of years. I'm not particularly good at it or trained, but hey, man, it's art. There are no rules!